By Gregory Wolfe,
and Editor of Image
Photos by Jimi Lott
Art's Capacity to Heal Spiritual
When Gregory Wolfe was young, it wasn't hard for his
members to teach him to respect art and the imagination. After all, many of
were artists and writers themselves.
"My grandfather trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art in Edinburgh,"
Wolfe. "I grew up with his paintings on the wall. We lived in New York City,
my mother often took me to the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim
Museum. My dad, a writer, was always working with words and publishing his
Now combining those early influences, Wolfe works as Seattle Pacific
first writer-in-residence and edits Image: A Journal of the Arts and
a leading literary quarterly. "My wife, Suzanne, and I founded Image
because we felt that too many Christians had become alienated from
culture," says Wolfe. "In becoming part of SPU, we wanted to help deepen and
extend the University's dialogue on the role of the imagination in the
Among Wolfe's books are Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography
(Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997) and
Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel
(University of Notre Dame Press, 1998). His most recent book, co-authored
Suzanne and inspired by their four children, is Circle of Grace: Praying With — and for —
(Ballantine, 2000). He received his M.A. in English literature from Oxford
"[Jesus] spit on the ground, made
some mud with the saliva,
and put it on the man's eyes. 'Go,' he told him, 'wash in the pool of
Siloam.' ... So the man went and washed, and came home seeing."
In this Gospel passage, Jesus
heals the blind man in a way that stands out from many
other accounts of Jesus' healing. He mixes his own spit with dirt to
make a clay poultice
for the blind man's eyes.
I don't think it's stretching things too far to see this as
a metaphor for art. Art,
after all, is a mixing of something that emerges from deep in the artist
using the materials of the world around us — materials like words,
pigment, clay. From that mixture comes something new, something that, when
it is well-made, can help to heal our blindness.
Nor is it a stretch to say that Jesus is the consummate artist, the model
for all artists. If you go back to the magnificent beginning of John's
gospel, in which Christ is spoken of as the Logos, the creative Word, you
will read John's claim that "without him was not anything made that was
made." Christ the Word is the agent of creation, the model for artists and
writers. His preferred form of teaching, after all, was that complex
literary form known as the parable.
"God's revelation is mediated not through a
set of logical
propositions but through the artistry of language."
The parables are brilliant verbal constructs, traps for the unwary.
They begin with common things: workers, masters, mustard seeds. But each
parable moves in a startling way from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
Workers who labor for an hour are paid the same as those who've worked all
day; a despised outsider shows more compassion for a mugging
victim than do members of God's chosen people.
The parables catch us out, force us to admit our petty, unimaginative ways
of thinking. They cannot be absorbed passively; we must participate in them.
Our response literally completes the story by making it our story.
If we stop to think about it for a moment, we will realize that the entire
Bible is full of stories, poetry, prophetic vision. While it is wrong to
consider the Word of God to be "merely literature," it is never less
than literature. God's revelation is mediated not through a set of
logical propositions but through the artistry of language.
But in the history of Western civilization, the imagination — which
lies at the heart of art — has often been given short shrift. There
has been a tendency in the West to speak of faith and reason as the two
great faculties of the human soul. The imagination has often played the role
of Cinderella, taken for granted, or at least left implicit, not fully
"In a more complete picture of the human soul, imagination shines
forth in a trinitarian relationship with faith and reason."
A closer inspection both of the Bible and of the greatest
theologians — from Gregory
of Nyssa to Dietrich Bonhoeffer — demonstrates that the imagination is
an indispensable aspect of both faith and reason. Imagination is like faith,
in that it dares to see meaning that is buried beneath the surface of
things. But the imagination depends on reason, too. Without reason, art
would not achieve complexity of form or vision.
In a more complete picture of the human soul, imagination shines forth in a
relationship with faith and reason. We might say that art is incarnational:
a union of form and content, flesh and spirit. Author Flannery O'Connor
speaks of the need to bring mystery and fact into harmony. Those who try to
enshrine the mystery without the fact become vague and abstract. Those who
choose fact without mystery are left with an inanimate lump of clay.
So it is vital that we see art not just as fancy decoration around what is
otherwise a set of rational propositions. To think that way is to reduce art
to nothing but sugar coating around the pill of truth.
No, many of the great Christian thinkers have held that art is its own way
of knowing the world. To do without it is to diminish our awareness of the
world, to become literalists who can't see the wood for the trees, to allow
blindness to gradually cloud our sight.
"As we enter the imaginative world, we become vulnerable.
But it is precisely in that vulnerability that we become
open to grace, to the touch that can clear our vision."
Yet throughout history, there have been Christians who have feared
In the name of holiness, images have been smashed, canvases shredded, books
True, the same impulse that might create an icon could, in a sinful mind and
heart, fabricate an idol. But as the medievals used to say, the abuse of a
thing does not nullify its proper use.
The imagination stirs fear because it possesses a visceral power. It can
lead us to places we can't foresee or control. And yet that is precisely
what Jesus does, to our inestimable benefit, in his parables. Those stories
were the cause of scandal. They undermined the complacency of many in Jesus'
Imagination involves risk, but without risk our spiritual lives become
hollow and inert. An encounter with a work of art involves something akin to
surrender. As we enter the imaginative world wrought by another, we become
vulnerable. But it is precisely in that vulnerability that we become open to
grace, to the touch that can clear our vision.
God's Imagination and
By Kerry Dearborn,
Assistant Professor of Theology
The power of the
Christian imagination is
that it not only transforms the way we
perceive the world, but it can also transform who we are in our
innermost being. What is the basis of such a dynamic imagination?
Kerry Dearborn led a workshop titled "The Power of
Christian Imagination" at the SPU Christian Writers Conference in May
Distinguished 19th century author George MacDonald showed profound insight
in this area:
"It will help much toward our understanding of the imagination and its
in man," he said, "if we first succeed in regarding aright the imagination
in which the imagination of man lives and moves and has its being."
Our imaginations find their source of creativity and insight through the
life and creativity of the Triune God of love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
only have we been created in the image of this God, whose creativity never
to astound us, but our imaginations have also been baptized by Christ
his life, death and resurrection. Without this cleansing, the imagination
to remain bent and self-centered, creating infectious illusions and a false
of reality, like the false prophets who cried "peace, peace where there is
There is always the temptation to turn stones into bread using even the
in order to satisfy our self-absorbing appetites. Lilly, a character in
Williams' novel Descent into Hell, depicts such a temptation. "Cross
hand with silver, and I'll not only tell you a good fortune, I'll make you
she entices. "Give me your hand, then come and dream. ... You'll never have
do anything for others anymore."
If our imaginations are to echo God's own creativity, they must be unbent,
and opened up toward God, rather than turned in on themselves. God's
through Christ into our dark despair opens us up to God's embracing and
light. God has come in Christ to anchor our lives and imaginations in God's
self-giving nature. Williams calls this the "terrible good," for it calls
death to self.
Where do we find the ongoing power for such a terrible good — the
to die to self in order to penetrate fully into others' despair and yet
light? This power is a gift to us from the Spirit of God, who is at work to
us from our insatiable egos and to draw us into God's own story. The Spirit
invites us with baptized imaginations to see what God sees — like
portrayal of Diamond, who climbs on the back of the North wind and is given
vision of reality. An imagination that would be empowered must be humble and
childlike enough to jump on the Spirit's wings, go where the Spirit would
see what the Spirit sees, and feel what the Spirit feels.
A godly imagination can handle despair, because it continually embraces
can go into the darkness where people feel abandoned, because it perceives
even the darkness is as light to God. It needn't capitulate to saccharine
portrayals of "peace, peace, where there is no peace," nor yield to the
of the tension where all is despair. Such an imagination is liberated to
truth in all of its present struggle and in all of its glory, to "proclaim
release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind ... to proclaim
year of the Lord's favor."
Through the imagination we enact the fundamental principle that Jesus
came to teach: we must learn to see through the eyes of others. In allowing
ourselves to be transported into the experience of others, art takes us out
of ourselves, teaches us compassion. And because compassion means "suffering
with," the imagination has to take into account the whole of reality,
including the existence of evil, death and human folly.
That is why art is not, and should not be, a matter of mere "uplift," to
quote O'Connor again. To treat art as uplift is to reduce it to mere
entertainment. While it can serve that purpose, that is not its highest end.
Great art makes demands; we have to work to grapple with its picture of
reality. In that sense, the greatest art is like the parables of Christ: It
demands our inner response, our completion of the story.
"There is, in fact, a true Renaissance of art and literature going on
now, one that incarnates the Judeo-Christian tradition of faith."
Too many Christians have essentially despaired of the faith's
ability to renew culture. That despair is ill-founded. There is, in fact, a
true Renaissance of art and literature going on now, one that incarnates the
Judeo-Christian tradition of faith.
In the face of modernity, many Christians have preferred to retreat into a
subculture, but to do this is to retreat from the Christian call to be
stewards. The Romantic image of the artist as being aloof from the community
has done terrible damage in our society. Art must exist in a dialogue with
the community, with the Church. Art can perplex and occasionally scandalize,
but there are risks in any form of expression.
May we all draw closer to God through his precious gift of imagination, the
gift that, at its best, helps us to capture glimpses of mystery through
fact. May works of art — those we make and those we encounter —
become vessels of grace, ways in which our blindness is healed.